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A Cut By Any Other Name: Secrets of the Butcher

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French Beef Cuts Diagram, 1855

Butchery is a skill as old as hunting itself, but now, butchers are undergoing a PR renaissance. And it virtually removes animals from the picture.

TV shows and articles about butchery are usually pretty devoid of actual meat cutting, focusing rather on charcuterie aging, butchery restaurants, or cooking techniques.

The thing is, the thoughtful creation of cuts of steak to maximize taste and value and use every part of an animal can vary widely among talented people around the world, from Korea to Uruguay, and even across America. Every butcher will tell you her way is the best.

Last month I had to feed a crowd on a dime. Pam the Butcher, my second-generation butcher of 15 years at Wagshal’s in Washington, D.C., sold me one of her specialty-cut sirloin steaks so flavorful that, when grilled and sliced thin in exactly the direction Pam recommended, my guests mistook it for twice-the-price rib eye. (If you’ve eaten at my house recently, I swear it wasn’t you.)

A few weeks later, I was in California for a wedding and I—like many long-suffering food writers before me—was in charge of informal cooking for a crowd of friends. Trudging into San Francisco’s Ferry Building, I asked the butcher for the same cut of sirloin steak.

“We don’t carry that steak,” he said. “But I can give you a tri-tip steak—you can’t get that on the east coast.” Everyone loved the tri-tip (a triangular lean steak from the bottom sirloin, which controls the hind legs), so when I was back in D.C. I asked Pam about it.

“I can cut you a tri-trip, I just don’t need to. A cow only gives two tri-tips, and I can get you big flavor and tenderness from any cut of meat, no matter what it is.” Pam is quick to defend her meat in the way that a mother is quick to defend her child—overwhelmingly passionate, and usually right.

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Old pork chart with numbered cuts and ham. Photograph by gameover / Alamy

From a cranny behind the counter, she pulls out a cow diagram from the Czech Republic like a 7-year-old with favorite baseball cards. “See this cut?” She asks, pointing to a small sliver near the cow’s rump. “In the Czech Republic this is called the rat tail, the golden muscle. You don’t see that cut anywhere else.” She compares the Czech diagram next to an image on her wall showing a cow sectioned into cuts as she might create them.

“This is why if you go to a grocery store and ask the guy behind the counter for a certain cut, a lot of the time he won’t have it or won’t know what you’re talking about. A real butcher always knows.”

At first blush, butchering may seem pretty straightforward. Reasonable facsimiles of Pam’s drawing of cow cuts (chuck is from the shoulder, round is from the rear, etc.) have become as trendy and ubiquitous as Taylor Swift songs, appearing on refrigerator magnets, embroidery patterns, and even baby bibs.

But generally those drawings show just the American primal cuts, the basic eight or so pieces a butcher breaks a half-cow into before cutting steaks or roasts. And even the primal cuts are debatable, to some extent—those meat charts can differ and artisanal butchers (most old-school butchers will laugh at this designation) have their own ways of doing things, honed by decades of experience. You don’t mess around when breaking down a 600-pound animal.

But you do play around, says Bill Fuchs, the owner of Wagshals. “We buy 6,000 pounds of beef a week so we can experiment. We realized years ago during the holidays, that there were no roasts at the price point between the rib roast and the rump. So we created a new roast, a sort of middle point between the two. We can respond to the marketplace and give people what they want by introducing a new product.”

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Chart on the wall at the Ginger Pig in London displaying different cuts of meat. Photograph by Rogan Macdonald, Getty

Creative butchery doesn’t apply only to cows. Ask Pam for pork baby back ribs and she’ll hand over a rack with a thick slab of meat still connected to the top, far thicker than the average grocery store rib. “This is a real baby back rib,” she says.

“The ribs you get in most places, the ones with hardly any meat on them? Butchers call them Danish ribs, because the Danish used to cut all of the meat off the top and keep it for themselves. Then they would send the rack of bones, with barely any meat on them, to America and call them ribs. Most butchers will cut that rib cap steak off and sell it separately to make more money because now we just expect grilled baby back ribs to have very little meat on that. I grill real baby backs.” Something rotten in Denmark indeed.

And Wagshals knows grilling. The Oakland Raiders and Athletics flies Wagshal’s Pitmasters Back Alley BBQ smoked brisket to serve at its stadiums. Mail order for the masses just started. (Try the burnt ends. Trust me.)

Fuchs spends a lot of time abroad sourcing new products for the shop, and he notes that countries differ not merely in how they create steaks. Butchers in the United States cut hogs cleanly down the middle of the spine while in Spain they chop hogs with an ax down the middle and take the spine out, so there is a roughness to the cut and a divot in the middle that Americans aren’t used to. “You have to embrace those kinds of cultural differences,” he says.

In that wisdom lies another truth: There is no grand answer to why people, cultures, and even coasts of the same country butcher animals differently. Traditions are handed down and change with innovation and eaters’ tastes. Notes Pam, “I still cut meat the way my dad did. But he would think it was really strange that people request no fat on their meat.”